In their second year of playing wheelchair tennis, sisters Alyssa and Renelle Belliveau were used to mostly just sharing the court with each other. That changed when they competed in their first tournaments this summer at the Shediac Tennis Club in New Brunswick – and their able-bodied opponents joined them in a chair.
Participating in the club’s big end-of-summer tournament, other kids agreed to sit in a wheelchair when playing opposite Alyssa and Renelle. While some were reluctant at first, Shediac Tennis Club’s Guylaine Chiasson says everyone ultimately really took to it and had a great time, even wanting to continue playing in chairs. The girls agree.
“It was a really good experience,” Alyssa, age 16, said. “I got to play with others who were also in wheelchairs. They had a hard time in the beginning, it’s hard pushing yourself with the racquet so it was funny to see, but they really enjoyed it and so did I.”
Her younger sister, 14-year-old Renelle, won her first match at the tournament.
“It was really great,” she said. “At first, I was playing one of the guys who works there and I thought for sure I was going to lose. He played in a wheelchair with me, and I ended up winning. So I advanced and I played one other person and I lost. But I loved the experience. I didn’t care that I lost because I liked it.”
The sisters, who have muscular dystrophy, first picked up a racquet last summer when Chiasson introduced wheelchair tennis lessons at the club. It was the latest in a slew of para sports they had tried, such as sledge hockey, badminton, basketball, and even sailing, thanks to their gym teacher Rhéal Hébert at École Grande-Digue.
Hébert originally saw that the girls were not having the same opportunity as the other kids to be active. Investing in sports chairs, the girls have been actively participating with their friends for the past couple years now, and the other kids often join Alyssa and Renelle in wheelchairs.
“It’s nice, because the kids get to feel what the girls feel like, playing in a chair,” said their mother Lynne Belliveau. “They can now actually play with their friends in sports which they probably never thought they’d have the opportunity to do. Sports have a big impact on them, socially and mentally, it’s fun to be able to go out and enjoy sport. It’s probably even more important when you have a disability to get out there and moving.”
While Alyssa has other passions – she also competed in a sailing event this summer and finished sixth – Renelle says she fell in love with wheelchair tennis right away and liked having another sport to play outside of school. Both her mother and Chiasson believe she has a lot of potential in the sport.
And at the Shediac Tennis Club, wheelchair tennis is a regular part of the scene now, with plans to continue lessons, tournaments, and regular play in chairs.
“We’re really proud of this project,” Chiasson said. “We do a lot of things at the club, but this is really the one that brings me the most happiness and pride. The first year we had this small girl. She was five or six, and it was the first time she could do a sport in the wheelchair. Seeing her smile, just for that it was so worth it. It brings me a lot of joy. It’s very rewarding.”
Though the Shediac Tennis Club is not winterized, both girls will have a chance to continue with wheelchair tennis and other para sports through the colder months in the school gym.